Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

  • Orlando Figes
  • Metropolitan Books
  • 352 pp.

Letters of passion, poetry and privation connect two true-life young lovers kept apart over many years and miles by the authoritarian politics and terrors of post-war Soviet Union.

Reviewed by Maria Kontak

Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes is as its subtitle reads — a true story of love and survival in the Gulag. Based on a miraculously preserved correspondence from 1946 to 1954 between two lovers, Sveta and Lev, the book draws the reader into the intimate lives of young people desperately in love and despairingly separated by the machinations of Stalin’s grisly regime. Meeting at a prestigious Moscow physics institute, Lev and Sveta fall in love on the eve of World War II. Hardship and adventure color their early courtship — Lev’s escape, capture, rescue and recapture; Sveta’s evacuation from Moscow, family turmoil and privation. The ominous separation caused by war takes a grimmer route. Lev, who is prone to quoting poetry and admiring the patina of the sky even as death surrounds him, gets a 10-year sentence for “treason against the Fatherland in military uniform.” From there he will linger in an Arctic Gulag, constantly haunted by fear of a transfer to something worse.

Yet Lev’s state is not the kind of suspended living that one might imagine. In short order, he carves out a congenial routine in the “parallel civilization to Soviet society” that is the Gulag system. In his letters to Sveta, hand-delivered in a perfected smugglers’ art — a fascinating feature of this parallel civilization is the presence of the ‘free workers’ in the Gulag zone, which is superbly detailed by Mr. Figes — Lev shares his world with his lover as she shares hers with him. Articulate, attractive, well educated and sophisticated, the two are determined to remain engaged in their parallel societies. There is no railing against injustice. In fact, curiously, there is little indictment of Stalin or the barbarous system that launched him and landed Lev in prison camp.

Instead, reason and sweat ooze from every page exchanged between them. Sveta toils to keep her family going in war-ravaged Moscow. Lev clings to occupation and camaraderie in the Electrical Group at the Gulag laboratory. There is order and duty in their lives, not just longing or fear or, at times for Lev, despair. Mainly, they stay busy, their letters dated and numbered meticulously. Tenacious in life as she is in love, Sveta tempts fate by finagling an “unauthorized” visit to Lev. Since she is neither a relative nor a spouse, any authorized visit in the Gulag is precluded. At this point, their drama reaches a climax, not only because of imminent physical dangers for Sveta and Lev, as well as those who aid Sveta in her mission, but because it marks a turning point in their relationship. Until then, the lovers’ theme has been largely blunted by the workings of necessity — the routine demands of their daily lives; the mechanics of the Gulag as the Cold War reshapes itself; the release, escape or death of Gulag friends. After Sveta’s visit to Lev, however, the numbered letters that signify the existence of one for the other, that have enabled them to bridge the years as a couple apart, bring less satisfaction. Sveta writes Lev that she can “see him” in her dreams, but she “can’t touch him” — “like God.” For his part, Lev can “picture her” but as he reads her letters he cannot hear her voice. She becomes disembodied in the letters and he finds this troubling.

Physical presence of the lover haunts their days and even more their dreams. It engenders a longing for children, especially in Sveta, which is only natural, but its poignancy is most affecting in their discussions of a god that may exist for Lev and does not exist for Sveta. Poetry and dreams are integral to the correspondence from the very beginning but it is the subject matter that rules poetry and dreams and takes on urgency later. The urgency, luckily, has a happy ending, which the reader may anticipate from the subtitle, if not the title, of the book.

Although expected, the ending is not the customary conclusion of a Gulag account, made notable by the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, and echoed in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (whose poem opens the work) and Marina Tsvetaeva. Each year, it seems, a new work appears on the topic as archives — and here one must laud the efforts of the MEMORIAL Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society, where this rare cache of more than 1,500 messages was discovered. But these are not only archives: they are memories made accessible.

There is a quality, perhaps tonality, to this wonderful work that conjures up another genre — the defunct epistolary novel of the 18th century, typified by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa. Not sentimental by any stretch, the letters of Just Send Me Word are modern and up-to- date, authored by physicists in harsh reality, not languid daydreams. Figes’ latest work touches on and shares something of the human heart with those earlier works of fiction. Details of Lev’s and Sveta’s busy lives and constructs of their parallel civilizations make this a necessary read for any historian of the era as well as the random politico-cultural voyeur.

Despite the reality at the base of the material, the tone is not altogether dark — and there is a palpable thrill in knowing that every word you read has a reference in a life, a person walking the earth as you do. Harkening back to a recent U.S. political slogan, ironically apt for a landscape held together over 70 years by political slogans, the book also has equal parts of “Yes we can!” Just Send Me Word blends Gulag and sentiment in its loftiest application into a “you- can’t- put- it- down” book and Orlando Figes, a modern master of Russian cultural history, brings off a worthy successor to Natasha’s Dance.

Maria Kontak, a writer, holds a doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan. Her short stories appear in “Bewildering Stories” webzine and she is working on a novel, The Thirty-Third Year.

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